Publish date:


Pennsylvania Commissioner Frank Wildman (below) ruled that Gypsy Joe Harris' defective right eye barred him from boxing. Wildman was just one player in a deadly game involving a man's health and livelihood that finally drove Gypsy back to the despair of The Street

Even i n that other time, then a soft summer afternoon, it seemed to be winter, the tableau so much like the gray etching of a tenement in a snowfall. Now, two years later, a Saturday afternoon, winter, dark falling on the soiled sunlight—nothing had changed. Not even the visual fragments: the eyes of the pawnbroker squinting at an old pinstripe suit; the black half-painted poolroom windows where raised cue tips wiggle and droop just above the paint line; and, finally, Willie Reddish, his porpoise body heaving and snoozing in the gym's big ripped chair, to the lullaby of a light bag.

Now it was an untroubled, dreamless sleep, but it never used to be. For a long time Willie used to sleep with one eye on the gym door, a hand on his wallet and a line like "I ain't got no money" poised on his lips. The eye waited for a boy who rarely came. The hand was there not because Willie feared robbery, but because whenever the boy was in the vicinity Willie and his money were soon parted. The line was always ready for the women who would rouse him, squeaking, "He said for you to give me some money. You got money!" These problems are gone now. Willie does not manage Gypsy Joe Harris anymore. Nobody manages Gypsy anymore.

Nobody, it seems, could ever have managed Gypsy, could have tempered his passions or checked his long slide toward a leftover life—so far from the one that promised so much just a short time ago. Frolicsome and singular whether he was in a ring or chalking a cue, Gypsy's rise was one of bonfire brilliance. At 22, embraced by those faddists who pursue the public mood, he was a major force in boxing, a box-office power and the sudden salvation of the sport in Philadelphia. At 24 Gypsy is just another name in boxing's long litany of failure, his own victim and a broken pawn in a callous gambit shrouded in mystery—a mystery daily mirrored by the face in the gym window on Columbia Avenue.

The gym, run by the police, is where Gypsy began fighting, where one night he was found banging wildly at the door, an ice cream melting in his hand and a pack of hunters not far behind. He stood there now, 12 years since it all began, looking out of the window, the glass misted by a fine rain. Outside, the faces floated by, faces of men wearing hats tipped for Saturday night love, of old women with hair set for Sunday morning church. He turned his eyes from the window and his head to the side. In the yellow light the profile—shaved head, corpselike expression, slack jaw and bent nose—was a haunting sculpture. He pointed to his right eye. It was like a dead agate.

"It's been like this for a long time," he said. "I've been blind in my right eye ever since Halloween of 1957 when some kid hit me in the eye with a brick. It was like this when I went for the prefight exams. The color was bad. I never had any trouble passin' physicals. If you memorize the third and fourth lines of the chart, you're all right. All the time I was fightin' I wasn't afraid of the ring or the bad eye or the good one or anything. Just afraid that someone, somehow would say somethin' about the blind eye and they'd pick up my license. It happened. In one second I was dead." The words—if true—are a powerful indictment of the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission.

The commission contests Gypsy's statement. "If you watch a doctor giving an eye test," says Commissioner Frank Wildman, "you know it's too tough to fake. Sure, I suppose it can be done, but how does one know what line is going to be called? We'd never heard anything about his blindness—total, semi, partial or anything—until after his license was suspended." The relationship between Wildman and Gypsy was often strained but it was not vengeful or vicious. "I've never been associated with a nicer kid," says Wildman, "but he was always a headache. Gypsy lives in another world. It's hard to uncover the truth with him." Wildman's view gets some corroboration from Yank Durham, who co-managed Gypsy along with Reddish, and Al Massey, a lightweight who lingered in Gypsy's shadow.

"No way," says Durham, "for him to be blind and still be so slick in avoidin' punches." Massey is less succinct. "Any man with a bright sense," he says, "knows he could not get away from punches the way Gypsy did if he were blind in one eye. The only time he got hit was when he wanted to get hit." Why would he say it if it were not true? "Well now," says Massey slyly, "if he say he was blind in one eye and not gettin' hit and doin' his stuff and lookin' pretty, the people begin to think, 'Damn! What if that cat had two eyes?' "

An incident on a mink farm in Pennsylvania not long ago adds credibility to Gypsy's claim. It happened in July of 1967 while he was visiting a close friend and benefactor named Bernard Pollack, a boxing dilettante, psychologist and wealthy mink rancher and furrier. Pollack, like Gypsy, has a shaved head and no sight in his right eye either; he lost the sight while sparring with one of his fighters. The fear of losing the vision in his remaining eye oppresses him constantly. He wears a dark-smoked lens over his bad eye and looks anxiously at the light with his good one. His head cocked toward the light, he says, "It was like this. Gypsy was up at my training camp one week, and it was 6:30 and we had just finished dinner and were walking around the countryside. For some reason we were discussing relative vision and how important it is. Gypsy offered that his vision was superb, and then he stopped suddenly and pointed to a tree a little less than 100 yards away and said, 'There's a caterpillar crawlin' on that limb out there.' I told him he was crazy, but he insisted and took us directly to the tree, the branch and the caterpillar. It was a fantastic display of animal acuity. Then, after a long moment, he said quietly, 'I'm blind in my right eye too. I'm just like you, Mr. Pollack. Since the age I was 11.' "

No one will ever be certain when Gypsy lost the sight in his eye; pick through the gelatinous structure of boxing, and you emerge, hopefully, with only an approximation of the truth, an educated evaluation or merely suspicion. But there is no question that the commission knew there was at least impairment in Gypsy's eye, beginning with his very first examination. If it did not know, then it did not perform even the perfunctory task of looking at its own medical reports.

If, indeed, the commission did inspect the routine findings after each examination, why was Gypsy never told of his condition or warned that in view of it he must train conscientiously—for his own protection—if he wished to continue fighting? History has dolorously proved that commissions are ineffectual, but one forever hopes they will learn to fulfill their principal function, which is to protect the public and the health of the fighters—not the orchestrating of back-room subterfuge, not the wearing of bland smiles or the mouthing of endless inanities.

Philadelphia indulged Gypsy Joe. Truant in training, cavalier about prefight procedures, he frolicked and capered from the beginning without the slightest supervision. The reason appears obvious. Gypsy Joe, the leader of the town's fight renaissance in a way Joe Frazier could never be, meant prosperity for boxing in Philadelphia. Gypsy insists the commission knew he was blind but allowed him to fight so long as it served someone's purpose.' 'It was fixed to let me fight," he says, "and then it was unfixed by somebody." The records, although they do not indicate blindness, do not do much to allay his suspicions:

Feb. 8, 1965—Right eye is 20/40. [It is noted that Harris wears glasses.] Right eye is to be checked with glasses and if not corrected then he must have ophthalmic evaluation. [Signed] Ayella, M.D.

Feb. 22, 1965—Right eye still to be checked for glasses.

March 29, 1965—Vision in the right eye is now 20/50. Ayella: Have advised correction of difference in vision, manager to be advised.

Aug. 18, 1965—Subject has been examined at Wills Eye Hospital and told he is okay. However, we want this in writing. His manager has been so instructed.

Gypsy never returned to Wills Eye Hospital but instead went to Dr. Milton J. Freiwald, an eye specialist, on Oct. 8, 1966. Dr. Freiwald found that Gypsy's vision had deteriorated in a year and a half from 20/40 to 20/300, which, if it does not signify legal blindness in the right eye, surely indicates the eye was useless in the ring. "The injury," reported Dr. Freiwald, "was sustained at the age of 11 years, when he was struck with a brick to the right ocular structure. Blurred vision resulted to the right eye." Dr. Freiwald wrote a letter to the commission for Gypsy saying that, although he was suffering an impairment, he could continue boxing provided he was carefully watched and supervised. The commission did neither, and two years and 11 fights later Gypsy's career came to an end.

On Oct. 10, 1968, while preparing to meet Manny Gonzalez, Gypsy reported for a prefight physical. The night before, Yank Durham had received a strange phone call. "Don't show up for the exam tomorrow," the anonymous caller told him. "There's not going to be any fight." Durham did not attend the examination. Gypsy arrived, his right eye inflamed. While training, he said, he had been continually thumbed by a sparring partner with whom he had long been at odds. "It seemed like a little conjunctivitis," says Wildman. "A little pinkeye. There didn't seem anything to worry about." Gypsy was sent immediately to Dr. Harold Scheie, another specialist. Dr. Scheie found him to be blind in the right eye. In a letter to the commission, Dr. Scheie said that Gypsy's "vision is limited to light perception...due to a practically complete cataract." He added that "the lens [is] nearly completely opaque...[which] suggests a long-standing ocular pathology...." The commission read Dr. Scheie's report and barred Gypsy from boxing. Why didn't Dr. Freiwald recommend that? Did he, after weighing all the evidence (he saw Gypsy fight many times), decide to let Gypsy go on fighting for nonmedical reasons? Did he consider the social and psychological aspects of the case and decide that fighting was Gypsy's only hold on life?

Besides the medical questions—who would profit from taking away Gypsy's license? The managers? The breed's money morality would seem to put them in the clear. The promoters? Maybe. Most promoters need no profit motive to make a "move," just a grudge or sufficient pique over not having the exclusive rights to a talent. And commissions have always been pliable enough for a promoter to bend.

Whether it was intentionally vague, indifferent or, like its colleagues elsewhere, just dumb, the Pennsylvania commission cannot elude criticism. It used Gypsy but gave him nothing. Wildman had said, "We never heard anything about his blindness—total, semi, partial or anything." Then what was Dr. Freiwald's report of a 20/300 condition? Was it just a recommendation that Gypsy required glasses? The commission, it seems clear, was never interested in Gypsy's physical welfare. Now it is heavy with sensitivity and generous with sympathy. "I can't let him fight," says Wildman sadly. "I just can't. I know it''s like sending him slowly to the gas chamber."

This is a beautiful example of missionary morality-save the natives from the crazing rum and let them die of malnutrition; protect Gypsy from future injury but commit him to The Street. The Street has the same geography, the same precipices everywhere, and you have to know its desperate horrors before you can decide whether it is better for Gypsy to be "out there"—or be a one-eyed fighter. "I'd rather have a cat fightin' with one eye than be a two-eyed junkie or a killer," says a friend of Gypsy's.

Homicide or busthead, heroin or heist—which way will Gypsy fall? "You have no choice," says the friend. "It chooses you. It just happens. Quickly. Then one day you wake up and you're doin' 15 to 20 somewhere, or they're tryin' to break you at Lexington or you find yourself pray-in' for one lousy little beer to hang what's left of you on. The way will be even tougher for Gypsy because he's been somebody else."

Calamity, one often felt, trailed Gypsy like other men's shadows. Nothing catastrophic ever happened to him, but there was always the feeling that he was so destructible, so fragile. The feeling persists and intensifies. Yet, contrarily, Gypsy is not a violent man, or even antisocial. It is just that what he called his "defense, the protection" was so potentially dangerous, when you remember the sinister click of his switchblade, the bayonet or the .45 being placed resolutely on the table in a bar. "Man, it's bad out there," he would say. It is especially bad for a man with a busted ego.

When Gypsy first surfaced it was easy to transform him into a symbol of the times. His kaleidoscopic, improvising style was interpreted by that suffocating phrase, "Doing his thing." His nonchalance, his resistance to training, were viewed as his expression of cool dissent; he was, they said, boxing's "flower child." The trouble was that the tag never belonged on him, nor was it wanted. Even his attitude toward black militancy or separatism was one of supreme disinterest. He was simply Gypsy, picaresque and primitive. There were a couple of reasons why he fought, but there was really only one drive. Sociological terms like "upward mobility" had no meaning for Gypsy. He sought only the approbation of The Street. "His world," says Pollack, "has no status or stratification. He is a hero in that one area of society and that's enough. Gypsy lives in a real world without fantasy." He did not want to change, says Durham. "He was happy on The Street. While he was fightin'."

Gypsy's long slide back began with his own attitude. He never seemed to like fighting, but he knew he needed it. The ring was his only way of creating, of expressing himself; the "science" of the sport bored him. His critics often dismissed his work, which seemed to remind them of a piece of J.C. Penney jewelry. But if you had no stylistic prejudices or distaste for the man personally, he could be awfully striking and effective. At times he came at you like the spinning color wheel in a discotheque, but more often he was artful and highly original with his bold, blaring strokes. The creation was what counted, and all else—except The Street—meant nothing. The money? "Hell, money!" says Durham. "He'd get, say, a cut of 8,000 and he'd be lookin' to borrow 300 five days later. Then you could get him to train." Nothing better reflects Gypsy's attitude toward boxing than his training habits, which were none.

Gypsy was gifted, but no fighter can escape the tedious rigors of the gym, no fighter can eat sloppily, train desultorily and continually end up on the day of a fight running and skipping rope and hammering the bags for six or seven rounds. True, there was Harry Greb (who also fought with one eye), Max Baer and others who worked the nights, but traditionalists say—and they are usually right—that the demands of the ring must be met with loneliness, asceticism and celibacy, until the point is reached where all of the emotions of deprivation rush out in one sweet, furious release. "I didn't have to train all that much," says Gypsy. "Nobody could ever hit me that much, and I sure weren't tired in a ring in my life." Yes, agrees Durham, "He was amazin'."

Why, with so much at stake, did he neglect training? Was he just irresponsible or was it because he feared the savage Philadelphia gyms for what might happen to his eye in them? Both, surely, may have been reasons, and it was only a matter of time before his behavior drove a wedge between him and his managers. Durham, though resenting Reddish's indolence, had done his best. He offered Gypsy $5 for every time he would come to the gym. "He never came in once," says Durham. "Can you imagine?" Then Durham offered a gentleman named Bodyguard $200 a week to shadow Gypsy and see that he made it to the gym each day. "Bodyguard," says Yank, "he come back after one day, pantin' and sayin', 'Save ya money, Yank. Gypsy, he leave tracks Tonto can't follow.' " Not even the solicitude of Joe Frazier could reach Gypsy. Frazier had genuine concern and affection for Gypsy Joe. Scuffed, bowlegged and gnomelike, Gypsy was certainly a curiosity when he traveled with Frazier. The two often drove around town together in Frazier's big car and Joe loaned him large sums of money, invited him out for dinner and generally tried to pull him from the grip of The Street. Nothing developed from this except what one might call an intense sibling rivalry on Gypsy's part. It is a natural tendency among fighters, but Gypsy could never balance his reactions. He grew increasingly resentful of the attention Durham gave Frazier and he was also disturbed over the interest shown in Lightweight Al Massey.

"It felt bad bein' all alone," said Gypsy, "knowin' nobody cares. Yank, he'd nursemaid Frazier everywhere they'd go. Willie Reddish could think of nothin' else but Massey. I was left out in the cold." Then, after a moment of reflection, he added, "I had feelings too, ya know. I was a star."

Gypsy's feelings toward his managers were not unique. The fighter and the manager are natural enemies; the same situation exists between actors and writers and their agents. To the fighter the manager is a parasitic procurer. To the manager the fighter is a trollop, usually daft and always perishable. As Jim Wirehouse says in The Harder They Fall: "Fighters aren't human." Gypsy was human and, despite his mindless capering, he was perceptive. He knew he had lost respect for his managers, and he sensed that they had no respect for him. Durham tried to bring Gypsy into line, but he had neither the talent nor the tenacity to do so. Reddish, phlegmatic and always weary, lacked the inclination and spirit. The fighter was just an object. "There's nothin' in a manager's contract," says Durham, "that says he's responsible for a fighter personally."

Gypsy went elsewhere for the security of friendship that he needed. Often he visited the farm of Bernard Pollack. "In friendship," says Pollack, "nothing accrues without profit. There must be an exchange for a relationship to succeed. I made a profit with Gypsy. I will never sever my friendship with him and I will continue to help him financially." The profit for Pollack was the excitement of being a friend and confidant of the fascinating Gypsy, but for Gypsy it was money and unrestrained indulgence. Pollack's interest has been expensive—$3,300 to date. "Look," he says, "some successful men get excitement from drinking or running around with strange women. Well, I've done neither. Boxing excites me."

It may have been costly, he agrees, but "it was worth it. I never judged him or sermonized to him. He wanted understanding and friendship and I gave it to him. Gypsy is a well-constructed person. I've given him simple basic tests, doodling more than anything, and he does well, except for the father figure who is remote and shadowy. He is not a difficult man. All the time he was up here he was a perfect houseguest. Everyone liked him. He never tried to con me. You could see he wanted to be disciplined, to be made to behave and train. When Gypsy was here at the farm he always held to a disciplined work schedule." Durham, though, believed Gypsy's relationship with Pollack spoiled his fighter. Pollack's intervention, he says, undermined his own attempts at discipline. "When Gypsy needed money," says Durham, "he would come around the gym. Pollack, the amateur, the Honest John businessman, ruined him. He turned the kid away from us. Pollack gave him money and took him away to his farm. We, me and Willie, were tough guys. We made Gypsy work for his money." Then, pausing and shaking his head, he says, "Such a waste of talent."

Let the trumpets cry low? Hardly. Gypsy is not an especially sympathetic character. He illustrates George Santayana's lines: "The foolishness of the simple is delightful; only the foolishness of the wise is exasperating." The fall of Gypsy Joe, who was wise as well as simple, is far removed from the flagrant abuses, grand deceptions and painful inhumanity that were prevalent—and revealed—in other times in boxing. No one stole Gypsy's money, no one brutalized his body, nor did he ever receive much punishment in the ring. What is unfortunate is that he recognized too late the pathology of his career; the internecine struggles, the emotions, the dumbness and indifference that slicked his quiet fall back to The Street.

"I was just startin' to learn about myself, about them," says Gypsy, standing outside as the gym door is locked. He begins walking up the block and someone hollers from a car, "Hey, Joe! When you fightin'?" "It'll be on the posters," Gypsy shouts back. "Look for them posters." Then he says, "It use to be when they hollered it was Gypsyyyy Joe, but now it's just plain Joe Harris. Sometimes I wake up and it's all like a dream. Hey, I say, Gypsy you only lost one out of 25 fights. Then I go shoot some pool, play some cards and I end up maybe in the bar. There's nothin' else to do because the best part of my life is gone. Later on I go home and I go to sleep. I hold my fists to my eyes, hopin' that when I wake up the blindness will be gone and everything will be Gypsyyyy again. It's all like a dream, I tell ya. I still don't understand how it happened."

He is walking briskly now, toward the neon flashing at the end of the block. It is quiet and dark and cold. He does not talk anymore. In the silence a story comes to mind that seems to sum up Gypsy Joe and boxing itself:

"Please help me," begged the spider, approaching a frog on the bank of a swelling stream. "I must get across."

"What!" said the frog, laughing. "Do you think I'm a fool? If I did that, you would surely bite me and I would just as surely die."

"What could I gain?" replied the spider, now desperate. "I too would die. I would drown, don't you see?"

The reasoning impressed the frog and he consented to take the spider across on his back. Then, in the middle of the stream, the frog suddenly looked back, his face masked with terror. "But how could you?" he screamed. "You promised...."

"I know, my friend," said the spider mournfully. "I am sorry. It is just my nature."





Behind Willie Reddish, his onetime co-manager, is the Police Athletic League gym where Gypsy Joe got his start.



At the camp of Joe Frazier, whom he manages, Yank Durham tells why he cannot accept Gypsy's story.



Gypsy's benefactor—like him, with one bad eye—Bernard Pollack tells a remarkable story of Gypsy's vision.